Travel is glamorous only in retrospect.
Every day has been an adventure in Cambodia. From border runs to bus scams, from marvelous ruins to dirt poor villages, we’ve seen it all and we’ve only been here a few days. I can’t possibly write about everything in just one post. I’m just going to try and write about the things that are affecting me the most right now. At the moment, I’m still trying to make some sense out of everything that I’ve seen since leaving Bangkok. We just spent the last four days in Siem Reap. We spent three of those days exploring Angkor Wat and the large park that surrounds it. It’s incredible. That’s all I’m going to say for now.
We traveled to Phnom Penh today by car. The distinction between upper classes and the dirt-poor is heartbreaking. From Poipet through to Phnom Penh, one sees huge, glamorous hotels, restaurants and casinos alongside wooden shacks built on stilts. Six year olds with babies in their arms beg for money and yesterday we drove by a hospital with thousands of parents lined up with their newborns waiting for vaccinations against dengue fever. The average monthly income is $30 US. From the land border of Poipet on through to Phnom Penh, we have seen a constant stream of humanity, all from different walks of life.
It’s breaking my heart and yet my eyes have never been more open. I’ve never been filled with so much wonder and sorrow at the same time. I wish I could help everyone here. John and I have been giving money to the needy once a day. Yesterday, we donated money to a local orphanage. The day before that we donated to a goup of war refugees. It simply isn’t possible to travel through this country and remain at a distance from these people.
Yesterday, I was approached by a dirty, little boy named Ami. He was selling books and postcards to earn money for his family. Although I had already bought books, he stopped to chat and was very excited to learn that I’m from Canada. He quickly recited everything he knew about Canada. He spoke to me in French. He recited all the provinces and territories. He asked about Ottawa, our Nation’s Capital, and informed me that most of our population lives along the border. I can’t think of any Canadian kid who could spout this kind of information about Cambodia or any other Asian country for that matter. At the end of it all, he left. He didn’t beg for money. He just smiled and wished me a good day.
Kids start working here at an early age. As soon as they are old enough to walk, they are old enough to work. Thy hawk postcards and books. They sell bits of jewelry. They take care of younger siblings, herd cows, carry, push, pull and toil into the late hours of the evening. If they are big enough, they drive scooters and motorcycles with livestock and fresh produce to the market. No time for play. No time for school. I’ve seen schools, but they’ve all been closed.
When we arrived in Phnom Penh, I could barely keep my eyes from closing. One glimpse and you will never be ordinary again. I feel guilty for what I have. I feel guilty to have the freedom to go where I please and move as I want. Last night, I saw bare-bottomed babies sitting in the gutters. I saw war amputees and mothers begging with babies lying listlessly in their arms. Everywhere I look, I see rich Westerners staying in five star hotels and averting their gaze from the destitute that line the streets. I won’t close my eyes to this. I’ve told John to hold on to all the money, because I’d probably give it all away. Everyone needs help here. We’ve limited ourselves to one person a day, but the choices are difficult. Who do we give to? Who is most needy? How can we be the judges? Last night, we ate while little children sat in rags on the street. I coulnd’t finish my meal and gave the rest of mine to them. John did the same.
What breaks my heart more than anything are the smiles we recieve from everyone. No matter their station in life, they smile and wave like they don’t have a care in the world.